Legal Video Advocacy: A Small Step Towards Decarceration

For years, the WITNESS U.S. team has been supporting activists to use video to document and expose systemic misconduct and abuses by law enforcement. We know the impact that video and storytelling can have in shifting narratives around policing and advocating for immigrant justice. That’s why we’ve expanded our work into a new area of criminal justice – our Legal Video Advocacy Project offers trainings, resources and partnerships with advocates, lawyers and incarcerated individuals to use video to help reduce client sentences, and advocate for decarceration through clemency and parole. 

Why do we think this is a strategic extension of our work? The United States puts more people in prison than any other country in the world. There are over 1.5 million people in U.S. state and federal prisons, or 2.3 million if you take into account local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, immigration detention centers, etc. These astronomical levels of incarceration disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities. Additionally, harsh sentencing laws have led to a national epidemic of elderly people behind bars. People 55 and older make up nearly 11% of the population, despite studies showing that the recidivism rate is only 3% for people 60 and over. 

Does having all of these people languishing in prison make our country safer? Absolutely not. Besides costing over $80 billion dollars a year to lock people up, mass incarceration has very little to no impact on crime reduction. On the contrary, it has a detrimental impact on our families and communities. Mass incarceration tears families apart and diminishes their economic stability. 

While our broader objectives are to help dismantle and transform the criminal justice system, we believe that helping individuals get out of prisons and promote human dignity, healing and growth is one small step in the right direction. And we believe video and storytelling can help in that process. As social justice movement leader and prison abolitionist Angela Davis says in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?

“Positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we [should] try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment–demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”

Why Legal Video Advocacy?

Through our recent trainings and partnerships with  CUNY Law Defenders Clinic, The Legal Aid Society, and Bard College, we’ve seen the power of video and storytelling in advancing these efforts. These tools can enable people to see and hear from someone who is incarcerated that they might not otherwise connect with – like a clemency board, or perhaps even the family of a victim. Video can allow the opportunity to see someone in their full humanity –  their mannerisms, their essence, the parts of a person that get lost in a lengthy packet or written statement. Video can help people control their own narrative and highlight elements of their personal story. Video can also help bring the voices of family or community members into a courtroom to speak to the character and value of an individual who is facing time in prison. And most importantly for a clemency or parole board, video can communicate a person’s transformation and their remorse in ways that written documentation can fall short. 

Rachel Goodman, a graduate of CUNY Law Defenders Clinic and Staff Attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, spoke to us about how video has helped her clients – and how working with WITNESS to develop a clear and thoughtful strategy streamlined the process and made it more participatory for everyone involved.

There are logistical, moral and ethical challenges to using video for legal advocacy. Video is not a magic wand and it’s not the right tool for everyone. While you don’t need to hire a big budget production team, creating a short and compelling video requires detailed planning along with some resources and time. It might be difficult to get the video to the intended audience, or you might not know if they’ve ever watched it. Additionally, advocacy strategies shouldn’t rely on video alone, but should also incorporate other tactics like letter writing, creative lawyering, one-on-one advocacy to officials and decision makers and/or collaborating with groups like the Parole Prep Project or Releasing Aging People in Prison.

Some may criticize these videos as being manipulative, playing with the emotions of the audience or re-traumatizing victims of crimes. Some may point out that producing a video is not accessible for all incarcerated individuals, nor for overburdened lawyers who are juggling massive caseloads and limited resources. We acknowledge and accept these challenges and valid concerns. There is no easy or one-size-fits all solution when it comes to changing our criminal justice system. But we know that our prison system is dehumanizing and does not enable the kind of growth, reflection, transformation or justice that many victims, survivors and perpetrators of crimes seek. Relying on mass incarceration as a solution to crime doesn’t decrease violence or make our communities safer.

That is why we believe legal video advocacy work, when done ethically and effectively, can help us take a small step towards reducing the prison population and moving towards a world that centers human dignity and reconciliation. We are moved by the individuals who have collaborated with us and motivated by the possibility that video can serve as a powerful tool for legal teams and incarcerated individuals, and ultimately could help support decarceration efforts across the country. 

Launching Our New Resources

To support a broader range of advocates, legal teams, clients and filmmakers in doing this work as thoughtfully, strategically and collaboratively as possible, we are publishing a new series of resources and guides. These materials are  informed by hands-on learning, feedback from legal and video production experts in the New York area, as well as the others doing work in this field nationally, like Regina Austin and Silicon Valley De-bug.

Keep in mind that parole and clemency can work differently from state to state. Check local laws or contact local organizations to learn more about the process and how you can best support.

These free, customizable materials are a work in progress and we look forward to seeing them develop and grow over time. We invite you to explore the resources below and help us improve and tailor them by sharing your thoughts at feedback [@]

WITNESS Resources

Additional Readings 

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